EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Saquon Barkley touched the football just 25 times before his 2020 season ended because of a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that will force him to undergo surgery and endure an arduous rehabilitation.
Do the Giants face a similarly challenging road ahead without their most dynamic and decorated player?
Coach Joe Judge is confident his team will soldier on, remain focused and continue to improve. But he knows the offense will require some alteration without the running back who rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the previous two seasons.
"First off, losing a player who is such a good teammate and someone who's such a hard worker on the field will impact the team in a lot of ways," Judge said after leading the team's review of the 17-13 loss to the Bears yesterday in Chicago. "Saquon is a tremendous player. We have even more respect for him as a person. I personally hate for this guy, as hard as he's worked and as much impact as he's had for this team. I know our team has similar feelings as well. I talked to a number of players already.
"In terms of how we game plan and scheme, our focus will always change week by week. Regardless of how our roster looks, we're always going to do what's best for the team going forward to match up with the specific opponent. The guys that are on our roster, we're going to have to find ways to put them in a positions of strength and find ways to match up with our opponent favorably."
The Giants have three other backs on their active roster: Dion Lewis, who took over for Barkley yesterday and scored the Giants' only touchdown; Wayne Gallman, who was inactive in Chicago but has rushed for 762 yards and caught 60 passes in four seasons with the team; and Eli Penny, who is listed as a fullback. In addition, veteran back Rod Smith is on the practice squad.
"Wayne and Dion are definitely guys that will factor in," Judge said. "We'll work to their strengths, they are two different types of backs. Both of them have a degree of toughness. Wayne's got that long speed, get him ranging out and get him really moving. Dion's got that real good short area quickness and burst to go get going. He does a great job of finding small seams and getting through the hole. They are both different guys, we're going to have to work with what they do well to give them an opportunity to be successful. … There's a number of players in our program we are going to be working with. We'll see where the future takes us elsewhere throughout this long season in the NFL. There's always a lot of roster movement."
Barkley was hurt on the first play of the second quarter. While gaining six yards running to his right, Barkley's leg landed awkwardly as he was tackled by safety Eddie Jackson. He appeared to be in pain before hitting the ground, where he grabbed his knee, pounded his fist and removed his helmet. Barkley underwent a preliminary examination in Chicago. The Giants announced at noon today that an MRI of his knee this morning at Hospital for Special Surgery confirmed the diagnosis of a torn ACL.
Barkley, who was elected a team captain for the second time, ends his third season with 34 rushing yards on 19 carries and six receptions for 60 yards.
"I think it's emotional for any of your players," Judge said. "You know how hard these guys work. You know how important it is to them. Not to mention how it impacts directly their own lives and their families' lives. There's definitely some emotion attached to losing any player. Saquon's obviously no different. He's been voted a captain on this team, he's very important to the team, he speaks for the team. He always holds the best interest of the team first. He exemplifies what it is on and off the field for us. We're going to miss having him on the grass, but we're going to keep him involved as much as we can going forward."
The two players who spoke publicly today grieved his loss but expressed confidence their teammates will respond favorably in the final 14 games, beginning at home Sunday against the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers.
"Obviously, my heart goes out to him," safety Jabrill Peppers said. "He works extremely hard. Obviously, he's a leader on this team. I know from working out with him over the summer that he was looking forward to this season after the ankle injury last year (that cost him three games and left him at least than 100% in several others). I'm definitely, definitely praying for him. But he's a guy who's going to bounce back better than ever. Minor setback for a major comeback. In this league, injuries happen. You hate it, but it happens. You have to have a next man up mentality. I think the guys that we have in the room do a good job stepping up."
"For it to happen the way it did yesterday, I know we're all kind of bummed because we are brothers," wide receiver Golden Tate said. "We love each other so much. It's unfortunate, but that is the nature of the game. There are injuries that happen in this game every game unfortunately. It always hurts when you have guys like Saquon and Shep (wide receiver Sterling Shepard) deal with an injury. But we're just going to keep chugging. We can't dwell on this. We have to just keep working hard and find a way."
Everyone connected to the Giants, from players and coaches to the team's millions of fans, are hopeful a healthy Barkley will return to the field in 2021.
"You look at some of the other guys around the league who have been able to come back from ACL's and have tremendous seasons those next years out," Judge said. "I think you can focus on there's a lot of top athletes and with the medical care they get right now. This is a young guy who is very physically gifted. There are good doctors out there, he is going to get the best medical care possible. We have a great training staff to help rehab him along the way. We're going to do everything in our position as coaches to keep him involved mentally sharp. Then when we finally get a chance to get him back on the field physically, obviously we're going to gear everything around his specific plan to get him going full speed at the right rate.
"I tell you what, I said it yesterday and I'll say it again, I won't fall asleep on 26, it's going to be a hell of a story."
*Judge did not provide a definitive diagnosis on Shepard.
"He did have a lower limb injury yesterday in the game," Judge said. "Tried to come back early in the second half and wasn't able to finish. We'll see where that is right now. I can't speak for Shep in terms of how he feels. I haven't been able to sit down with him and talk with him directly about that yet. I'm going to check with our training staff after this meeting and see where things are at going forward."
*When Tate saw flags flying in the end zone, he thought the Giants would get a second final chance to win the game yesterday.
Alas, the officials had other ideas and penalized the veteran receiver for offensive pass interference, officially ending the game.
"Once I saw the flags, I thought the flag had come out pretty late after the play, I thought it was on Jackson or whoever that was on my back," Tate said. "But that didn't happen to be the case. It's unfortunate, but it is what it is."
The officials ruled that Tate had shoved Buster Skrine on the game's final play, a third down from the Chicago 10-yard line that began with four seconds remaining.
"Just a very competitive play," Tate said. "I went back and watched the film. I think it was a close call. But the refs called what they called and it is what it is. I'm a believer in just not leaving it up to anyone but ourselves. If we handle business earlier in that game, then maybe we don't have to even get to that point."